Bushwalking threatens biodiversity hotspot

By Victoria Laurie 29 March 2011
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Botanically rich Fitzgerald National Park in WA is at threat from a deadly fungal disease, say experts.

A $40 MILLION TOURISM upgrade to one of Western Australia’s most biodiverse national parks has hit opposition over fears that a deadly fungal disease will penetrate wilderness areas.

The proposed plan to create new walking tracks “shows a complete disregard for the true values of the park and the impact of the disease,” warns Dr Russell Barrett of the Kings Park and Botanic Garden in Perth.

The Fitzgerald River National Park, a World Biosphere Reserve in the state’s southwest, is home to the tiny honey possum, the rare western ground parrot and the dibbler, a carnivorous marsupial once thought to be extinct. They live in dense lowland scrub, which is home to a quarter of WA’s plant species – around 100 of which are found nowhere else.

Destroyer of plants

One of the most spectacular endemics, royal hakea (Hakea victoria), grows in 3 m-tall spikes and towers over heath, pea, proteas and myrtle species, all of which are susceptible to the root-rot fungus known as ‘dieback’. The latin name, Phytophthora, literally means “destroyer of plants”.

The WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) has warned that dieback poses a major risk, and some walking tracks have long been closed to protect valuable natural assets.

But DEC and the state government are now planning to open up the reserve’s remote heart, an area designated a wilderness zone and covering one third of the total 330,000 ha area. For 20 years, this has been quarantined from vehicles and bushwalkers.

The western ground parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris) has undergone rapid decline (Credit: DEC).

In 2009, the park was promised a major tourism upgrade by WA Premier Colin Barnett, after BHP-Billiton backed out of multi-billion dollar plans to establish a mine in the region. In a $40-milllion investment, Fitzgerald River NP is now seeking to attract eco-tourism with sealed roads and camping facilities. There will also be a 60km coastal walk, with overnight camping areas, through the designated wilderness zone.

But opponents warn that highly contagious fungus will be spread by walkers and vehicles. Russell, who has conducted surveys in the park, says that a “very large number of proteas are likely to be killed – and dieback only needs to take out one species that honey possums rely on for the animals to be wiped out.”

Highly contagious fungi threatens ecosystem collapse

Russell told Australian Geographic that a WA Conservation Commission report found that dieback control measures are failing, despite efforts including a $1.6 million eradication program inside Fitzgerald River NP. “Why would the government throw money at the problem while at the same time proposing plans that would increase the spread of dieback?,” he asks.
Gillian Craig, spokesperson for the Friends of Fitzgerald River National Park, a volunteer community group, says they support walking trails in existing recreation areas. But she adds that “there will be ecosystem collapse if dieback is introduced into the extremely biodiverse wilderness zone.”

Ian Goldfinch, president of the Shire of Ravensthorpe, of which the park is part, says residents and visitors deserve more, after many years of limited access. “[This] will be highly controlled along a world-class walk,” he says. “More people mean more rangers and better management.”

A DEC spokesperson dismissed the fears, arguing that “the upgraded trail will put in place management conditions which will improve the situation by requiring walkers to register and learn about dieback and how to avoid spreading the disease.”